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Growing Pains: Tailor your Agile coaching to the phase of your team

As a Father of three boys, I have been able to witness the growth of my sons through several phases of maturity. Some of these phases are more painful than others, and each exhibits its own unique set of characteristics. I have learned (or rather “am still learning”) to deal with my sons differently depending on which phase they are in. As an Agile coach, I take my clients through similar phases of maturity as it relates to their Agile adoption. Recently, I discussed the similarities with a few MATRIX coaches and we developed a seminar to help organizations identify which phase of maturity they were in, and cater their Agile transformation approach accordingly. Five distinct phases emerged – each with varying degrees of experience, levels of engagement and behavioral traits. Of course, each organization doesn’t necessarily start at the beginning, nor do they spend an equal amount of time at each stage. But these provide a good reference point from which to analyze and coach.

Newborn

There is something magical about a newborn entering the world. A fresh start for a new life with a world of opportunity. These little babies are wide-eyed and just taking it all in.

Many Agile transformations start in a similar way, though not nearly as magical. Organizations begin with open minds, ready to make a change in order to grow. They have generally heard the words, but don’t quite understand what they mean (though sometimes they think they do). These organizations are interested, but generally uneducated in what it means to be Agile. Consequently, they are unaware of the Agile strengths they possess, but may display some transparency or collaboration. Most do not have strong financial commitment yet and are spearheaded by only a few individuals.

When coaching the Novice level, it is important to “be the good parent”. Organizations at this level need exposure to the Agile principles and positive reinforcement of the benefits they can provide. The coach needs to make a high-level assessment of the organization and structure the appropriate levels of training and education to get started. A high-level Agile roadmap is also a good way to describe where we are headed. A good dose of encouragement and support is needed to get through this dependent phase.

Toddler

Our baby has learned to walk and now wants to explore the world. This world is much bigger now and there is so much more to see. Toddlers are curious and sometimes mischievous, but are mostly a big sponge trying to soak up as much about this world as they can.

Not all Agile transformations start from the same point. While some begin in the Novice phase, some actually start off as toddlers. They may already be a collaborative environment, encourage transparency, and follow some of the mechanics of Agile methodologies. Some toddlers have one or more teams adopting Agile on some level. Many times this team is within IT and could have varying degrees of business involvement. Some of these teams are doing some of the right things, but aren’t always clear on the spirit of what they are doing and why it is vital to their success. More of the resources are getting educated, but there are still varying degrees of dedication across the organization. Teams that use a specific methodology (e.g. Scrum or Kanban) are typically focused on the daily or weekly items, but lack the larger scale picture.

Coaching at the Toddler level is where things really start progressing. By this time, an Agile champion has been identified and will help evangelize across the organization. A more focused assessment should be performed to ensure teams will receive the right variety of focused training. Teams should now begin to show measurable successes (even if only at a small scale). Coaching should be working to increase the organizational commitment and engagement, along with an increased focus on forming the trust between Business and IT. New teams are being introduced to the process and are exhibiting Agile signs like increased transparency, collaboration and co-location. Most importantly, coaching focus is placed on teams being able to consistently “commit & do”, “commit & do”.

Teenager

Now the fun begins. Our toddler is all grown up – or so they think. They now know everything and are starting to break many of the rules as they strive for independence.

Organizations in the Teenager stage are showing success – often in a small area of the company using a single methodology. However, they are struggling with replicating that success across the enterprise. The teams are receiving more training and individual certifications are becoming more common. The organization is dedicating more members to Agile teams and transparency is increasing. The Business-IT relationship has moved through the forming phase and may be storming as deadlines, equitable (scope) exchange, architecture needs, engineering practices, etc. begin to strain the relationship. Some teams in this phase are overly focused on ceremonies and aren’t focusing as much on the principles.

Coaching in the Teenager phase is vitally important. This phase is where the organization encounters adversity and must be committed and have good guidance if they are to succeed. The training and education focus now needs to move into the leadership positions so that everyone is on the same page related to organizational trade-offs. Shedding more light onto short, contained, failed attempts helps the organization grow and evolve. If the coach can be “the big brother” and get the organization through the teenager phase, good things await.

Graduate

The backside of adolescence is a much more peaceful place. The pains of the teenager years have given our young adults much-needed experience and have helped them understand “the why” around the agile principles and processes. Now it is time for them to settle into a sustainable model for the long haul.

If the organization perseveres through the teenager stage, the graduate stage can be very fruitful. The organization should now understand its strengths and weaknesses related to Agile and be focused on making strategic changes to address things like hiring practices, employee retention, reporting structure, etc. Teams are finding it easier to be dedicated to a single project as the organization understands the benefits. During this phase, most of the large shifts have subsided and organizations are striving for consistency and predictability across the board. The organization has accepted the retrospective nature of Agile and is regularly looking inward as a normal course of business. Transparency is encouraged, embraced and protected, and tools have been mastered to support this visibility.

Much of the large movement is complete and coaching is now more focused on sustainability. Setting up Centers of Excellence (CoE), changing Standard Operating Procedures, etc. is now commonplace. The passion remains and Coaches continue to tweak the process including evolving the metrics, implementing collaboration tools for co-located resources and enhancing the business value calculations. Embracing the realities of dispersed Agile teams and finding creative ways to continue its agility should also be a focus. The in-depth exposure is still increasing, though at a slower rate and to the far side of the organization like HR, Finance, etc. This may also be a transition phase where an outside consultant begins training/mentoring an in-house coach to lead going forward.

Professional

Our boy is all grown up – and now trying to raise his own. He exhibits a calm confidence – stemming from knowledge and experience. Values and beliefs hold more weight than ever, as he knows the right path is not always the shortest path, and relies on his wisdom for guidance.

The organization is in the final stage of maturity. However, there is no finish line, but rather a repeated series of starting lines. Agility is now firmly embedded in the culture and constant retrospection is occurring. Success is being re-defined as the organization, business and people evolve. Employees are transparent and regularly recognize successes and failures to the rest of the organization. Grasp of the Agile concepts is high, but everyone understands that continual learning is essential. The use of the terms “Business” and “IT” is lessened as everyone is seen as a teammate working towards a common set of goals.

The coaching focus is now centered on continual learning and refinement. The CoE should be established, available and used by most. If an external coach led the transformation, a set of internal coaches must now take the torch. The organization should be performing regular health checks and constantly creating/re-prioritizing the areas of improvement.

Summary

The Agile coaching phases described here represent a framework for guidance. As mentioned before, many organizations won’t fall or move perfectly through these as they mature. However, knowing your stage and the appropriate coaching to be delivered can make a positive impact to Agile adoption. So pay attention to the signs and try not to drink from the fire hose too much. It hurts!

 

So are you an Agile toddler or a graduate? Take our Agile Maturity Quiz to find out.

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